Carnival vs. Royal Caribbean: Smackdown!
Carnival and Royal Caribbean rule the waves. They’re the cruise world’s biggest, most well-known players. Both have giant new ships geared toward just about everyone: young, old, singles, couples, and families. The cruises are low-priced (Carnival’s especially), casual, and focused on good old-fashioned fun rather than lectures or highbrow classes. The differences between the two lines lie in Royal Caribbean’s focus on sporty activities — think climbing walls and boxing rings — and Carnival’s casual dining and party-friendly atmosphere. Read on to see how the two stack up:
Carnival Highlights: Carnival's ships are known as the “Fun Ships” for a reason. This casual, affordable, family-friendly (and party-friendly) line is one of the best choices for first-time cruisers, kids, and young folks on a budget.
- Despite the low price point, their service is often considered among the best in the business, and their solid lineup of included onboard dining features fan-favorites like Guy’s Burger Joint, Tandoori Grill, and Blue Iguana Cantina.
- Cruises on Carnival are extremely laidback and often have a “tailgate” atmosphere (think of a neighborhood pool party with beer buckets and belly flops). As you might have guessed, these sailings aren’t for anyone looking for a posh and elegant journey on the high seas.
- Carnival’s partnership with Dr. Seuss, plus their activity-filled Sportsquare and family-friendly games like Hasbro: The Game Show, make them the perfect line for families cruising on a budget.
Royal Caribbean Highlights: The top cruise line for adrenaline junkies, Royal Caribbean’s approach to cruising could be described as “go big or go home”. While some of the older ships in their fleet are “smaller” (if you can bring yourself to call a ship with 3,000 passengers “small”), most of their new vessels can easily hold upwards of 5,000 passengers on every sailing, and four of the top five largest ships in the world fly the Royal Caribbean flag.
- Royal’s newest ships come with so many onboard activities, entertainment, and dining options, you literally will not be able to experience all of it in a single 7-night sailing.
- Royal Caribbean continues to uphold its reputation as the biggest pioneer of onboard entertainment, and nearly all of its ships boast its signature rock climbing walls and surf simulators. Its newer ships come with even more onboard adventures like zip lines, sky-diving simulators, and enormous water slides. You might get overwhelmed by their ships, but you will never, ever be bored.
- Royal’s Oasis-class ships continue to be among the top-rated ships on Cruiseline.com, and their newest ship, Symphony of the Seas, has absolutely dominated our Members’ Choice awards for the past two years.
- While Royal is a great option for outgoing and adventurous families, couples, and singles, it is absolutely not for travelers looking for a low-key getaway.
Carnival Cruise Prices: Out of the biggest cruise lines sailing the Caribbean (Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Disney, Celebrity, Princess, and Holland America), Carnival is the most affordable in the business.
- Balcony cabins on their newest ships often go for as low as $75/night, per person. (You’ll struggle to find balcony cabins for less than $100/night on other lines.)
- Inside cabins on short, 4-night sailings to the Bahamas and the Caribbean are almost always available for less than $50/night, per person.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Prices: It’s possible to find good deals on Royal Caribbean sailings, but it’s not nearly as common and their floor is significantly higher than Carnival’s (particularly for their newer ships).
- Royal’s older ships sail short Caribbean and Bahamas itineraries with price points similar to Carnival, but these ships don’t have the new, cutting-edge amenities Royal has become known for over the past decade.
- It’s possible to find good deals for their top ships like Oasis and Allure, (think inside cabins from about $70/night per person and balcony cabins from $100/night), but sailing during high-demand times of year generally costs more.
Our Pick: Carnival hands down. It’s easy to make the case that Royal Caribbean’s higher fares are well worth the price, but if you’re cruising on a budget, Carnival’s fares are consistently lower.
Carnival Itineraries: The vast bulk of Carnival’s cruises ply the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Mexico, but it does have a few ships sailing to ports in Europe, Alaska, and Hawaii. Carnival ships mostly sail from major ports like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, Tampa, Galveston and New York. One thing Carnival doesn’t generally offer is long cruise itineraries, as most of their sailings are 7 nights or less.
Royal Caribbean Itineraries: Royal Caribbean’s fleet of globe-trotters goes everywhere Carnival does plus more exotic locales like Asia, Australia, and South America. Royal Caribbean also has a large number of extended sailings from 8-14 nights, perfect for more experienced cruisers who want to explore hard-to-reach ports or spend a few extra days at sea.
Our Pick: Royal Caribbean. Carnival has expanded its offering of itineraries in recent years, but it’s still a primarily Caribbean-focused line. Royal Caribbean’s ships will take you just about anywhere you want to go, plus their new private island CocoCay is arguably the best private island in the business.
Carnival Cabins: Carnival ships have always been as big on cabins as they are on fun, and you won’t find one in the fleet smaller than 185 square feet — even in the inside rooms. The shower stalls are roomy to match. The cabin choices on older ships are far more straightforward, although Vista and Horizon have added a number of new options to keep up with the rest of the industry.
Royal Caribbean Cabins: Royal Caribbean is not as known for space. Their notoriously narrow tubelike showers (if you have to bend over to pick up your soap, good luck) mirror their more compact cabins. For example, inside cabins on Majesty of the Seas measure a paltry 114 square feet.
Our Pick: Draw. You can deal with a small cabin, but nobody wants to feel like a sardine. That said, the more distinctly modern design of Royal’s cabins can make up for the lack of room.
Carnival Specialty Cabins: While Carnival’s specialty cabins used to be somewhat underwhelming, their newest ships rolled out three new excellent and affordable specialty categories.
- Family Harbor Staterooms come with exclusive access to the nearby Family Harbor Lounge, which offers breakfast in the morning and snacks all day, plus family-friendly activities like board games, movies, and more. Booking one of these staterooms also means your kids will eat free in most specialty restaurants, and it even comes with one free evening of Night Owls babysitting service.
- Havana Harbor Staterooms are designed to feel like an exclusive island resort and come with exclusive access to the Havana Bar and Pool. As you might expect, the rooms have a delightfully Cuban aesthetic, and cruisers who upgrade to the Havana Cabana will have an extra-large outdoor space with a hammock chair.
- Cloud 9 Spa Staterooms come with elegant decor than a typical Carnival cabin, along with in-room amenities like Elemis toiletries and spa-branded bathrobes and slippers. These cabins also come with priority spa reservations, fitness classes, and unlimited access to the thermal suites.
Royal Caribbean Specialty Cabins: Royal Caribbean’s high-end specialty cabins are truly something to be marvelled at: the two-story, glass-walled loft suites on the Oasis- and Quantum-class ships have a sea-facing living room below and loft bedroom above. These two classes of ships also have prime suites facing the diving and swimming shows in the AquaTheater. But since the vast majority of cruisers will never be able to afford them, let’s go over some of their other offerings:
- Spa staterooms are now available on all Radiance-, Voyager-, Freedom-, Oasis-, and Quantum-class ships. These come with the traditional spa amenities like fluffy robes and slippers, luxury bedding, upgraded bathrooms and toiletries, plus jetted shower heads and Bluetooth speakers in each room. These also come with priority spa reservations and discounted spa treatments, daily coffee or tea, and a welcome gift of fresh fruit on embarkation day.
- For those with smaller budgets, newer Royal Caribbean ships ships will have inside cabins with virtual balconies — digital panels displaying what’s happening outside the ship in real time. Likewise, the “interior balcony” rooms on Oasis and Quantum-class ships make balcony cabins slightly more affordable, though we have wonder if it’s worth the loss of privacy and the lack of an ocean view.
Our Pick: Carnival. Royal Caribbean used to be the undisputed winner here, but Carnival’s recent innovations have put them ahead.
Carnival Dining: While Carnival’s specialty restaurants may not be the most competitive, the selection of included dining options is downright impressive considering their price point.
- Fans of fast casual will love that Guy’s Burger Joint (launched by Food Network star Guy Fieri) is included in the cruise fare. You can grab a Guy’s burger on 24 ships in the fleet, and his Pig & Anchor Bar-b-Que is now on 7 different ships. BlueIguana Cantina also serves excellent burritos on the lido — be sure to try the breakfast burrito — making Carnival a serious contender for the title of “Best Poolside Eateries”.
- The outstanding Indian cuisine at the Tandoor buffet is a staple of the fleet, while the Seafood Shack serving a “catch of the day” and the outstanding Chinese food at JiJi’s Asian Kitchen are new additions to the fleet that show Carnival is still committed to innovation.
- While the specialty options are limited, the modern steakhouse Fahrenheit 555 tends to stand out with its cuisine ranging from escargot tucked into tiny rounds of puff pastry to vertical platings of steak topped with roasted garlic, to the chocolate tastings in elegant little glasses.
- There is generally one formal night per cruise where passengers are asked to dress up for dinner. Those who don’t want to participate can eat at the buffet.
Royal Caribbean Dining: While Carnival’s specialty restaurants are few and far between, the newest Royal Caribbean ships have so many you won’t be able to eat at all of them in a single 7-night sailing. This might be disappointing for cruisers who like to experience everything a ship has to offer, but you’ll have a great selection to choose from.
- Top choices include classic pub grub by James Beard Award-winning Chef Michael Schwartz at 150 Central Park to rustic Italian from celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver and Asian fusion cuisine comprising Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian dishes.
- The whimsical Alice-inspired Wonderland restaurant, the modern Mexican venue Sabor with guacamole prepared tableside, and Sugar Beach ice cream and candy shop all showcase Royal’s culinary adventurousness and desire to take onboard cuisine to the next level.
- For those looking for simplicity rather than experimentation, some Royal Caribbean ships have pizzerias, doughnut shops, and hot dog stands; others have Johnny Rockets diners.
- There is generally one formal night per cruise where passengers are asked to dress up for dinner. Those who don’t want to participate can eat at the buffet.
Our Pick: Draw. They both have impressive new options, plus some dependable old ones. Casual cruisers generally prefer Carnival’s simplicity, while foodies will appreciate the selection and innovation of Royal’s lineup.
Carnival Activities: For years, Carnival relied on basic fun, with passengers happily swigging beer out of the can and cheering on shipmates in belly flop contests by the pool, but hats off to the line for rolling with the times and offering a greater variety of things to do over the past few years.
- You can find a variety of water slides at the WaterWorks water park, and most ships have mini-golf courses. The SportSquare on 7 ships comes with basketball courts and a ropes course.
- Lido deck activities directed by the Cruise Line have a casual feel, with contests for the hairiest chest, sexiest legs, and biggest belly flop.
- For indoor fun, Carnival’s lineup includes standard cruise classics like trivia, bingo and dance classes, along with Hasbro the Game Show, an interactive, family-friendly game where cruisers can play enormous versions of Hasbro games like Yahtzee, Connect Four, and Simon.
- Adults can find much-needed solace at the Serenity Adult Only Retreat (a kids-free area with a bar and plenty of lounge chairs) or the onboard spa with hot stone massages or full-body wraps.
Royal Caribbean Activities: Royal Caribbean is known as the pioneer of onboard innovation. The line started with climbing walls to FlowRider® surfing simulators, and has since added ziplining nine stories above deck, bumper cars, and even a sky diving chamber with RipCord by iFLY.
- Basketball courts and rock climbing walls are on every Royal Caribbean ship, and most have mini-golf courses as well.
- All of their ships have at least two water slides, and the line can now claim the title of tallest slide at sea thanks to the 10-story Ultimate Abyss slide on Harmony of the Seas.
- Newer ships come with a SeaPlex, the largest indoor active space at sea with a circus school, full-size regulation basketball court, roller skating, bumper cars, and DJ booth.
- Adults can relax at the Vitality Spa or the Solarium, a large, tropically-themed space with lounge chairs, hot tubs, and a full bar covered by a large glass canopy.
Our Pick: Royal Caribbean. The line “went there” before anyone else did, and is still going bigger and better than the competition.
Carnival Entertainment: From the start, Carnival’s forte has been its ability to throw a really great party night after night, with passengers dancing the hours away in cavernous discos and popular piano bars. Their stage shows are less of a draw, but you’ll still find plenty of entertainment on board.
- Carnival’s Playlist Productions features LED screen and special effects for a number of different stage shows including "America Rocks," "Flick," "Amor Cubano," "Heart and Soul" and "Epic Rock."
- The Punchliner Comedy Club has both R-rated and family-friendly shows from talented and high-profile comedians.
Royal Caribbean Entertainment: Like their onboard activities, Royal specializes in adding flashy, high-tech flares to their live performances. Case in point: the Two70 entertainment venue, a cutting-edge, multimedia concert experience with video projection and moving screens controlled by robotic arms.
- Royal’s top stage shows give Broadway a run for its money. The show varies by ship, but the most popular include staples like “Momma Mia”, “Hairspray” and “Grease”.
- The line’s older ships have parades, movies, and ice and water shows, and their causal entertainment includes piano sing-alongs a the Schooner Bar or Karaoke at the On Air Club.
- The outdoor AquaTheater is a truly unique venue in cruising, offering high diving and aquatic dancing shows. Some cabins even have a direct view of this theater so you can watch from your balcony.
Our Pick: Draw. Carnival’s nightlife and partying are unrivaled (even on its older, less cutting-edge ships), but Royal Caribbean’s high-tech entertainment is truly mind blowing.
Kids & Families
Carnival Kids & Families: Carnival’s decks are filled with activities, and pools are topped with the line’s Twister water slide, as well as “splash zones” for the littlest cruisers. Carnival also scores points for Hasbro: The Game Show and its 24-hour pizza.
- The outdoor play areas feature mini-basketball hoops and jungle gyms, and the indoor game rooms offer the latest video and arcade games.
- At Camp Carnival, activities are divided into three groups: ages 2 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 to 11. At night, the club offers Night Owls, so kids get to stay up late while their parents go out.
- Kids 12 to 14 can head to Circle C with a dance floor with plasma screens displaying movies and videos, a jukebox, gaming pods, and more.
- Expanded kids’ menus include a daily special, and older kids can grab dinner poolside at the 24-hour pizzeria or the grill, and pick up soft serve anytime. Through the Bottomless Bubbles Soda Card, kids have access to unlimited sodas and juices.
Royal Caribbean Kids & Families: Although Royal lost its wonderful character partnership with Dreamworks in 2019, their selection of thrilling onboard activities still makes them one of the best lines for older kids and teens.
- The Adventure Ocean kids clubs on Oasis ships have designated areas for toddlers, kids, tweens, and teens, and come with a theater, video arcades, a DJ academy, and arts and crafts workshops.
- The Royal Tots and Royal Babies programs are a boon to parents of babies and toddlers — drop off your little ones during the day or evening for an hourly fee (only Disney offers care for children as young).
- Royal’s ships have plenty of kid-friendly dining options ,including New york-style pizza and burgers and hot dogs from Johnny Rockets.
Our Pick: Royal Caribbean. Royal wins with its drop-off care for under 3s and its private in-cabin babysitting option, not to mention the climbing walls, roller skating and other sports.
Our pick: Royal Caribbean. Carnival is a solid option for casual, low-key cruisers or first-time sailors looking for affordable Caribbean getaways, but the party atmosphere may be a little too laidback for some. Both lines are great choices for families and offer excellent selections of dining, but overall Royal Caribbean comes out on top — just barely — thanks to its envelope-pushing innovations in onboard activities, entertainment, and dining.
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Which cruise line do you like best?